Nothing defines a town like its neighborhood restaurants, places that reflect the handmade vision of a particular owner but that wind up standing for a larger sense of place.
If you're not from the near Eastside of Indianapolis and you're driving east on New York Street, it can be easy to run past Ralph's Great Divide without realizing you're missing a genuine city landmark. Those who know about Ralph's, though (and they are legion), hang a hard right on to Davidson and park. Soon, whatever they bring with them by way of appetite will be dispatched.
The menu says that "Sarcasm is a complimentary service at Ralph's," but servers that helped us were friendly -- and fast. The place consists of smoking and nonsmoking rooms bridged by a bar. It's like a clubhouse, chock full of mementoes like framed '30s sheet music, sports paraphernalia and, given that the U.S. Marines are a family tradition, plenty of Leatherneck references. Everything on view feels like it proceeds from someone's lived experience. Plenty of chains try to replicate this effect; sit down in Ralph's and you know you've found the real thing.
This also is true of the food. Ralph's is the kind of place where they take pride in thinking up their own variations of traditional all-American fare. Sandwiches made with Dave's Bourbon Baked Ham, for example. I ordered the Ethel ($7.49 and, yes, there is also a Lucy for the same price, but on rye with Swiss), a stack of thinly sliced ham combined with smoked cheddar, lettuce, tomato and mayo on a toasted English muffin. This sandwich is as slippery as it is tasty, which is to say, very.
I added a side salad with homemade Ralphie Boy's bleu cheese dressing ($1.99 plus an extra $1.25). This was a generous chop salad, including celery and carrots. And the dressing was worth the extra charge -- thick with plenty of chunks of aromatic cheese.
Ralph's likes cheese. My companion had a cup of the Hot Pot Aug ($2.99), a rich cream of potato soup loaded with croutons and topped with a blanket of melted cheddar.
Cheddar was also used as a garnish atop a side order of pea salad ($1.99), a cool, sweet, lightly creamy treat.
Ralph's says its club sandwiches are a favorite of law enforcement and, sure enough, there were a couple of uniformed officers on the premises. We ordered the triple-decker "Q" Club ($7.24), a classic, including roasted turkey and bacon on toasted wheat. Solid.
Ralph's slogan is "Good Things Made Better." That's the whole truth and nothing but.